What Are Boundaries in Relationships and Why Are They Important?

Boundaries are limits put on a relationship in order to establish the safety of an individual. These limits are for the purpose of maintaining the relationship to the degree that is emotionally/physically/sexually safe for the individual. This part is very important because good boundaries are not walls. Walls push people away and shut them out. When you establish certain boundaries in relationships, you are essentially saying to them, “This is what I need to feel safe in this relationship. If you can’t give me that, I can’t feel safe.” Boundaries are about needs not wants or what is convenient for you. Setting a boundary and telling your spouse that you can’t feel safe unless they put the silverware down properly in the dishwasher is not a healthy boundary. However, stating to them that you don’t feel safe having sex with them as long as they are looking and engaging in pornography and not telling you about it is a healthy boundary. Everyone has boundaries even if you don’t realize it (e.g. you probably don’t tell your pharmacist about your sex life). Healthy boundaries are ESSENTIAL to a lasting healthy relationship. When healthy boundaries are not established or respected in a relationship, emotional and relational distress WILL BE created. There are a number of requirements in order to use boundaries in a healthy way.

1) Good Intentions

The intent of the boundary has to be safety and to maintain the relationship on a level where this safety is respected. In other words, you shouldn’t use boundaries to control the behavior of other individuals or to punish them in any way (e.g. “You’re being a jerk today so you can say goodbye to any chance you had with having sex with me tonight!”)

2) Rational Mindset

Never establish boundaries when in a reactive/emotional state. Boundaries should always be established and expressed in a rational thoughtful manner where there has been sufficient time to think out the decision. However, this doesn’t mean that you won’t be feeling fear and worry when you express a boundary to someone. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to set healthy boundaries. You have to be willing to take the risks of losing possible connection to get healthier connection for both of you.

3) Follow Through

It is essential you follow through with consequences if your boundaries are not respected. If you are not willing to do this then don’t waste your time in setting the boundary in the first place. For example, if you state to your partner, “Bob, I want to understand how you are feeling, but I don’t feel safe to talk to you if you continue to speak to me with degrading and demeaning language. If you choose to use this language to communicate your feelings then I will have to emotionally protect myself by disengaging in the conversation.” Therefore, it is essential that you follow through with this promise. If you choose to get defensive and use the same language back then you are choosing not to respect your own boundaries and therefore, your partner will not either.

4) Clear and Specific

Boundaries need to be clear and specific. Vague expressions of boundaries can be confusing for your partner and yourself. Spend the time trying to establish specific limits for your safety and the consequences when those limits are broken or not respected by other individuals. What are your non-negotiables in the relationship? Non-negotiable are specific boundaries that will require separation or divorce if ever broken. What are your sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries that you are required to have to keep yourself safe and connected in the relationship? If these boundaries are broken, what would you need to do to continue to create safety for yourself?

5) Expression

Boundaries also need to be expressed when appropriate. We can’t expect people to respect our boundaries if they don’t know what they are. It’s wrong for us to assume people should know how we feel and what we need. This is one of the most common mistakes in relationships.

For more information about boundaries, I suggest reading Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. Sometimes it can be difficult to see what boundaries need to be set in our relationship as well as how we should follow through with them. Seek guidance from an experienced counselor to help direct you in these decisions.

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Six Things I Wish Every Couple Knew Before They Got Married

There are a lot of things couples wish they probably knew before they got married, but here are six important principles that I think that would have saved a lot of couples from pain and heartbreak. 

 

1)   It takes work to make a marriage work.

  • Marriage is not a picnic. It isn’t the cherry on top. It is a start of a new way of life. A new way of really living. You will find out more things about yourself and your spouse that will challenge both of you, but if you want to be happy, do what it takes to make the changes YOU need to make. Don’t rely on your partner to do the work.

2)   Any couple can make it work as long as you’re both willing to do the work.

  • I don’t believe in falling out of love. I don’t believe in “we are just not right for each other.” I believe in a foundation of love and a whole lot of resentment and unmet expectations that gets built on top of love that leads to these statements.

3)   Sometimes divorce is warranted, but it’s used more often in relationships than it should be.

  • There are some relationships that are better off apart. (e.g. abuse, infidelity, no change or personal growth from one person after years of patience). However, I think that couples often pull the trigger on divorce sooner than they should because of consistent heartbreak and let-downs, and they want to be free from it. They put all the effort they feel like they had in the relationship, but they didn’t have the skills and guidance to make it work. Achieving a successful marriage is like trying to open a door to your partner’s world. However, in many cases of divorce, couples will spend all their energy trying to kick the door down instead of using the doorknob. Unfortunately, they just end up hurting themselves and accepting failure that the door just won’t open. When actually, they don’t understand how a doorknob works or realize it was there in the first place.

4)   You don’t have to do it alone.

  • Many people think that they need to work on their problems themselves, and they don’t want to bother people or are afraid of what others might think of their current situation. It doesn’t have to be that way! Don’t do it alone. There are many people that are willing and able to help (family, friends, church leaders, therapy, etc.). Just make sure that you are both doing it together and not against each other. Therapy is a common thing people don’t want to admit they need. I think everybody could benefit from therapy. I have two daughters. The first thing I will do when they get engaged to their partners is to send them to a therapist to work on their relationship. It is better to work on their issues at the beginning and learn to talk to each other rather than waiting till the relationship hangs by a thread, and you have already spend years trying to kick the door down and don’t feel like turning a doorknob.

 5)   Ninety percent of the time, right and wrong is irrelevant in relationships.

  • Many times couples get so caught up in their view of the world and expect their partners to see things the way that they see it, they forget that they are often the only ones in their world and that their partners live in a entirely different world. There is no “right” world. There are just differences on how we view the world. Spend time understanding and validating how your partner sees things. You will learn something and your partner will too. The greatest thing that they will learn is that you love and care for them and the things that are important to them. How often do we wish to serve and care about others once we feel cared about ourselves? Your partner is much more likely to hear you if you hear them first. Don’t get caught up in right and wrong views. You will just end up going in circles with each other and it doesn’t get anywhere.

6)   Spend less time and effort on being loved and more effort on loving.

  • People always think that the best way to feel loved by their partners is by spending all their energy on making sure that they get their needs met by their partner. You would be surprised at how much time people spend on trying to do this. Unfortunately, It just results in self-absorption, unmet expectations, and feeling more disconnected and unloved. The best way to be cared for and loved by your partner is to make sure they are being cared for and loved by you. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to be able to express your feelings and the needs that are important for you. If you don’t, you are just taking the opposite end of failure and caring too much for your partners needs and not getting your own met. However, people often spend too much time focusing on what they don’t have and not enough time on what they do have and what they should be giving to their partners. You will be happier and more fulfilled as a person if you spend less time worrying about yourself and more time making sure you are loving your partner enough and building them up.

The Three Pillars of Happiness

photo_6953_20080816I have learned through my work with clients and in my own personal life that there are three pillars or foundations that I think are necessary for overcoming any trial (e.g. addiction, individual trauma, life stressors) and obtaining peace and happiness. These pillars are: The Emotional Pillar, The Spiritual Pillar, and The Choice Pillar.

1) The Emotional Pillar

Often times, we underestimate the emotional side to our problems. We live in a society that teaches us that emotions or feelings are trivial or unimportant. We focus much of our efforts in overcoming and getting rid of the feelings that we don’t like rather than trying to understand them. We hope that through the passage of time, our problems will work itself out. We tell ourselves, “I just need time.” In fact, what we are really saying is, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore so I just need some time to numb my pain and distract myself with other things.” Addicts of all kinds do this on a regular basis, and they are often completely unaware that the constant porn use, or the “just a little more television, then I will go to bed,” or the constant need to find something to eat even though they are not even hungry is most often the result of not properly managing and dealing with emotional needs. Many of us are not sure how to deal with what we are feeling without making matters worse. This is why therapy can be important. Sometimes we were never taught how to deal and manage our emotional turmoil. That’s why it’s okay to get help.

2) The Spiritual Pillar

I firmly believe that spirituality is an important foundation for happiness. However, I think that many of us often mistake religiosity for spirituality. They are actually quite different. We can go to church and show our worship for a Higher Power but still feel completely disconnected to that Higher Power. Each of us needs a connection to something more powerful than ourselves; a personal and intimate connection. Someone that we feel will lead and guide us in our lives and onto a better and happier path. We need to feel that something or someone is out there looking over us and has a plan for us. Gaining a greater spiritual connection with our Higher Power can greatly increase our individual self-worth and give us the motivation to live the life we need to be happy.

3) The Choice Pillar

I have been racking my brain on what to call this pillar. I think the choice pillar has a mixture of our individual behaviors to obtain the happiness we seek, the work we need to do for ourselves and others, and how our thoughts often determine our actions and the importance of changing them. I have realized that it all comes down to “choice.” Many of us frequently feel that we are stuck in our lives and that no matter what decision we make, it is a dead end. We can also feel at times that we are bound to certain behaviors or actions and that we cannot control them no matter what we do. This is really a hopeless place, isn’t it? It is also a lie we often tell ourselves because sometimes it is easier to give up then to keep trying and always failing. Then we start to wrestle with ourselves. A part of us knows we can do better, but the other part is telling us that we can’t. This is when it really gets frustrating. However, we should never loose sight that no matter what battles occur within ourselves that we always have the choice to do something different then what we are presently doing. Even if it is impossible to believe that we can’t envision our life without porn, television, food, etc., we can choose to make a step in the right direction. Even if it is just a small step. However, often times, we expect more of ourselves than just small steps and then if we can’t live up to our high expectations then we tell ourselves that we might as well not do it at all. I see this all the time with people setting individual goals. I once set a goal to read a chapter in my scriptures everyday. I lasted a week and then gave up. Later, a wise person said to me, “If you start with a chapter you will never meet your goal! That’s like saying that my goal is to run a marathon by next week, but I have never actually ran a day in my life. Why don’t you just start with a verse a day and go from there?” It was great advice. Since then, I have rarely missed a day. Don’t set your goals too high. Start small and work from there.

Often times, we might focus on just one of the pillars and neglect the other two feeling that we don’t need them. This often ends with failure to overcome our difficulties and can lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. I see this with porn addicts all the time. Many of them feel that if they have faith in God, pray hard enough, and do all the work necessary to keep them from acting out (Pillars 1 and 3) then they can overcome their problem. Sometimes it works too. However, what usually happens next is because they neglect their Emotional Pillar, they find themselves starting new addictions (e.g. video games, television, food).

For myself, every time I face a problem I will ask myself about these three pillars and which of the three pillars I might be neglecting that is influencing my dilemma. First, “How am I emotionally with this issue?” or “What is happening with me on an emotional level that might be contributing to this issue?” I then ask, “How is my relationship with my Higher Power? Am I feeling distant?” Lastly I will ask, “What is my part in this? What can I do to get through this and on to the path I want to be on?”

I believe that if we focus on all three of these pillars to overcome our problems, we can gain the happiness and peace we really look for and let go of the chains and baggage that we so desperately seek to let go.

There is No Such Thing as Constructive Criticism, All Criticism is Destructive

Being married to a therapist can be difficult. I am sure my wife would agree with that statement. Often times, I find myself getting wrapped up in what “I” think is best for our two girls and their development. Because of this, I don’t hesitate at practicing some constructive criticism and making it known to my wife what I feel is best for her and our girls. After all, I am the expert, right? Shouldn’t my wife just hang on to my every word regarding how best to parent our children? WRONG!

One of the most difficult things to face as a therapist is that often people look to you as the expert, expecting you to have it all together in your own relationship. Well, I don’t!!  Just saying this makes the little therapist inside of me yell in my ear, reminding me that I am not supposed to admit that.

At times, I find myself guiding couples through important principles that they need to adopt in their relationship and then immediately recognizing how I lack those principles in my own. I just had the pleasure of reliving this experience. I know for myself that knowing something and doing it are two different things. In spite of this, luckily, I have the tools necessary to fix the problem.

This time, what I reminded myself to watch out for is the common practice of using constructive criticism in relationships. I notice how this comes up quite a bit with couples. Some common examples of this type of criticism in relationships is when one partner expresses to other partner what he or she should do to fix their dilemma. This occurs frequently with parenting. With my own experience, my wife will often come to me and talk about her frustrating day with the girls. She will often express the difficulties that she had faced because one or both of our daughters were not listening to her prompts. My first initial reaction to this is to “fix” the problem. Isn’t that why my wife is coming to me in the first place? So I can tell her what to do? WRONG AGAIN!!

The last thing she needs is for me to tell her what I feel is best for her and the girls. My intentions might be good. After all, I feel sad that she is having a rough time. I might also feel responsible for her current emotional state. I believe it is natural for a man to feel powerful in wanting to protect and provide for his family, not only on a temporal level but a spiritual and emotional level as well. However, I have learned the hard way that using my constructive criticism to tell her how to fix her problems has ended in her feeling I don’t care and understand what she is going through, and it has left her questioning her abilities as a mother. For this, I feel responsible for. The fact, that my actions has lead her into feeling doubt about her abilities as a mother pains my heart and brings me to sadness.

What I have learned and often try to help other couples to understand is that a husband and wife are EQUAL PARTNERS. It is not my right to remind my wife of her faults and shortcomings!! This is not my role as a husband. However, I am justified to offer a suggestion on how to better her situation, but she is equally justified to reject such a request to give her advice. Plus, that’s not what she really needs from me. What she is looking for in that moment of crisis is for her husband to understand her fears and worries as a parent. She needs validation and a reminder that she is doing the best she can with what she has. She needs to be reminded of her abilities as a mother and that there are innate qualities that she has, in spite of her weaknesses, that makes her more capable of nurturing our children than I am. Ultimately, she needs me to lift her up and support her through her crisis. This is the only thing she needs from me at the time. She doesn’t need a husband telling her what she should and shouldn’t do!

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as I have strived to be the support and rock that she has needed through validation and empowerment on my part is the joy I have received knowing that I have practiced my role as a husband, and as a result, she feels loved and cared for by me. To me, being emotionally available for my wife is one of the highest levels of masculinity that I have found.